LINCOLN (AP) — A harsh summer drought that threatened Nebraska farms and ranches has prompted lawmakers to take a fresh look at climate change, an issue that has gotten little traction in the Legislature.
A bill that would launch a state review of climate change and its possible impact on life in Nebraska advanced out of a committee last week and is on pace to be debated this year.
Sen. Ken Haar's proposal would direct the state's climate assessment commission to draft a report for lawmakers and the governor. Haar, a widely known environmental advocate in the Legislature, has chosen the measure as his priority bill for the session, which increases the odds that lawmakers will debate it.
“We've never really had the discussion in the Legislature, and I don't know how it's going to turn out,” said Haar of Malcolm, Neb.
“What we want to ask is, 'What does science say?' We have to make our own choices in this state, but climate change will likely have an impact on the temperature in Nebraska and the water that we get from the Rockies.”
Scientists agree overwhelmingly that global climate change is under way and will most likely accelerate and that human activity is a significant contributor. Temperatures in the central United States are expected to rise by 4 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century.
For Nebraska, the higher temperatures will probably translate into a more arid climate with heavier but less frequent rainfall, said Clinton Rowe, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor and climatology expert.
“That's not really what agriculture wants,” Rowe said. “They want a nice, gentle, steady rain. Farmers, water resource managers and people like that — they're the ones who are going to feel the impacts.”
Under Haar's proposal, the state climate committee would look at the effects of climate change on Nebraska. Committee members would draft a report on the state's climate patterns, as well as on the possible impacts on agriculture, water, wildlife, ecosystems, forests and outdoor recreation.
The committee would release an initial report in September 2014 and present a final report to lawmakers and the governor by December 2014.
The bill would also add a state climate expert to Nebraska's Climate Assessment Response Committee. The committee was formed in 1991 to help Nebraska plan and respond to droughts.
That new member would come from the High Plains Regional Climate Center, part of UNL, which gathers climate data from across the Plains.
The climate committee's current membership includes livestock and crop producers, Nebraska agency directors, a staffer from the governor's policy research office and the chairmen of the Legislature's Agriculture and Natural Resources Committees.
Climate change remains a divisive political issue, but the bill's supporters said recent massive wildfires and last summer's drought have raised new awareness among a growing number of farmers.
“We know that things are changing,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union. “We've moved past the discussion about whether or not something is happening.
“What we want are the simple, practical resources that we need to deal with the very real impact on agriculture.”
Hansen pointed to the impact of the summer drought, which created a severe hay shortage for cattle ranchers and contributed to massive summer wildfires.
The Legislature's Agriculture Committee advanced the bill last week on a 6-0 vote. Sens. Ken Schilz of Ogallala and Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins were counted as present but not voting.
The Agriculture Committee included an amendment that would require the climate committee to deliver “overarching recommendations” on climate change but that stripped wording that would have mandated a long-term plan to prepare.
Schilz, the committee's chairman, said he hadn't yet decided whether to support the bill. He said he had concerns that the committee report might be used to “make a statement” about the environment, which could end up hurting agriculture.
A 2006 United Nations report, “Livestock's Long Shadow,” found that livestock accounted for 18 percent of the world's greenhouse gases — a larger contribution than that of transportation.
Schilz, a cattle feeder and farmer, said he wasn't yet convinced that weather shifts reflected climate change: “If they're going to come out with some crazy notion that you can't feed cattle in Nebraska anymore, then I have a big problem with that.”
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.